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A seat at the high table

With the sealing of the nuclear deal, a huge historical wrong done against India has been undone, writes Pallava Bagla.

india Updated: Jul 29, 2007 23:24 IST

With the sealing of the nuclear deal, a huge historical wrong done against India has been undone — a wrong that pushed India into the nuclear dog house, a global mistake that made India into a nuclear pariah.

To India’s huge discomfort, the developed world literally ganged up to create artificial barriers that impeded the transfer of sensitive high technology that India needed so much for its development. These regressive systems were created in the garb of stopping proliferation of nuclear weapons. Thanks to the new atomic tango between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, these technology denial regimes targeted at India may well be a thing of the past. India is finally getting a place at the high table, a stool at least if not a chair.

The dice got heavily loaded against India ever since the country refused to sign what it called "the flawed"

nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which had set an artificial date of January 1, 1967, as having been the date by which any country that had exploded a nuclear device, got a nuclear weapons status. The US, Russia, France, Great Britain and China — the P-5 — got in and then made all efforts to ensure their hegemony is never broken.

The first country outside this holy NPT framework to explode a nuclear device was India, when in the summer of 1974, the sands below Pokhran shook resoundingly, loudly proclaiming to the world the arrival of a new nuclear kid on the block. Ever since, all hell broke loose and all kinds of sanctions and technology transfer restrictions were clamped on India, so much so that Indian space and nuclear facilities had to overcome mountains of red-tape even to import common pins. The man on the street was denied the fruits of technology.

A global cartel called the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), now a group of 45 countries, was created essentially to box India into a corner and by its own admission “the NSG was created following the explosion in 1974 of a nuclear device by a non-nuclear-weapon State, which demonstrated that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes could be misused”. Much to India’s distaste, it became a nuclear untouchable and several unrelated civilian sectors had to pay a heavy price as well.

Fuel and spare part supplies for India’s nuclear reactors were suddenly stopped, so much so that at times it became hazardous to keep the Tarapur nuclear power reactors running. In the 1980s, India was denied the permission to import a Cray Super Computer for weather forecasting needs and the reason given was that it could be used to design atom bombs. Later, the country was denied technology to manufacture Cryogenic engines needed to hoist communication satellites using locally made rockets. The list is endless.

Higher and higher barriers were being placed around India merely to contain the development of the high-technology sectors in India. It is a different matter that the more the technology was denied to India, the more determined did Indian scientists get, also ably supported by the government, to overcome these embargoes.

The embargoes were overcome not by flouting them or by buying stuff from the so-called "nuclear Wal- Mart", but by sheer dint of hard work. Whatever was denied has been slowly built locally. Sanctions only delayed the development of these technologies; they did not scuttle whole projects. India is the only country where the American sanctions regime produced the opposite results for which it was put in place. As an analogy, when fish was denied to the country, in retaliation India mastered fishing, thwarting the very purpose of these actions.

The restrictive regimes became overbearing when, in 1998, the sand dunes of Pokhran were emblazoned once again with the sound and fury of another five nuclear weapons tests. Not being coy like the last time when the country had dubbed the test as a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, in 1998 India aptly declared itself a “nuclear weapons State”. To recall the words of the then US President, Bill Clinton, who exclaimed “we will fall on them [India] like a tonne of bricks”, the sanctions regime became very strict with “presumption of denial” being the guiding principle for every request for sourcing simple spare parts like computer chips and chemicals. The heat was faced even by Indian scientists; several were summarily suspended from American laboratories. Such was the viciousness that leading nuclear scientist

R Chidambaram, today the principal scientific advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was denied a visa to visit the US to attend a science meeting.

That India continued its steady tortoise-paced, but determined, plod on the high technology highway and then also had reasonably impressive results to show, is one of the reasons that so-called “nuclear hares” of the world decided to dismantle these artificial walls. The US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Initiative is one such concrete step in that direction. Four decades of nuclear winter is more or less over for India, and it seems the breakthrough came about not really having lost an inch of ground. The country still seems to have retained the same high moral ground on which it had rejected the NPT, and is now being accommodated within the non-proliferation umbrella while retaining its nuclear weapons. That in the last 60 years, India never broke any international norms, or violated any global treaties only helped matters.

Now that the deal has been inked, the floodgates of nuclear commerce with India will be opened since as External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Lok Sabha last winter: “Our current estimates envisage nuclear power generation of 30,000 MWe by 2022 and 63,000 MWe by 2032,” which translates into India seeking to invest at least $ 100 billion in this infrastructure sector alone in the next 25 years. It seems this giant pot of gold was a large enough attraction for countries to remove several hurdles, iron out the wrinkles so that trade in high technology could begin once again with India.

Much to India’s delight, the very same country that spearheaded the moves to establish these obstacles is today at the forefront of dismantling them. The world indeed has come full circle.

Pallava Bagla is a science communicator based in New Delhi

First Published: Jul 29, 2007 23:22 IST